Ollie Lawrence and Manu Tuilagi can be England’s gain-line dominating centre pairing

Manu Tuilagi of England exercises during a gym session at Pennyhill Park - Ollie Lawrence and Manu Tuilagi can be England’s gain-line dominating centre pair at Rugby World Cup

Manu Tuilagi’s renowned power brings the midfield carrying thrust England need – Getty Images/Dan Mullan

Death, taxes and doubt over England’s first-choice midfield; these are three certainties in life. As the World Cup finally rolls around, it is with a sense of inevitability that we cannot be sure of the centre partnership that Steve Borthwick will turn to when stakes are highest. Indeed, with just four warm-up matches until the tournament begins, a totally untried combination could crash the party. And ‘crash’ is the operative word.

Having been thrust into the top job just seven months ago, Borthwick was always going to have to show conviction – and flout convention – for England to contend. He has promised elements of the unexpected and a pairing of Manu Tuilagi and Ollie Lawrence could be an effective curveball.

Borthwick has alternatives that are arguably safer. From the quartet of Owen Farrell, George Ford, Henry Slade and Tuilagi, he can assemble the two front-line configurations of 2019: Ford-Farrell-Tuilagi and Farrell-Tuilagi-Slade. Marcus Smith and Farrell have spent time as a 10-12 axis. Elliot Daly, Joe Marchant and Guy Porter are other potential outside centres.

Ollie Lawrence running in England training  - Ollie Lawrence and Manu Tuilagi can be England’s gain-line dominating centre pair at Rugby World Cup

Ollie Lawrence will take some stopping once he builds up a head of steam – Getty Images/Steve Bardens

But a Tuilagi-Lawrence collaboration offers England the carrying thrust that they are clearly concerned about lacking among their forwards, and there is also the temptation to react to the general landscape. Look around the globe. Teaming up two tackle-breakers has become a trend.

France boast Jonathan Danty and Gaël Fickou. Bundee Aki has shifted Robbie Henshaw to Ireland’s outside centre role when Garry Ringrose has been unavailable. Jordie Barrett’s emergence alongside Rieko Ioane has enhanced the All Blacks. Sione Tuipulotu and Huw Jones were influential during Scotland’s Six Nations campaign, having ousted the excellent Chris Harris.

Santiago Chocobares and Lucio Cinti impressed on Saturday for Argentina against South Africa, who will themselves select a midfield duo from a quartet of Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, André Esterhuizen and Jesse Kriel. Eddie Jones is hoping that Len Ikitau will return as Australia’s foil for Samu Kerevi, while Wales could field Nick Tompkins and George North. Fiji could assemble Semi Radradra and Waisea Nayacalevu, pushing Josua Tuisova to the wing. Tonga have Pita Ahki and Malakai Fekitoa.

With both Tuilagi and Lawrence on the pitch at the same time, spearing towards the gain-line, England would not lack for direct running threats. However, ball-carrying is just one base that needs covering and this combination would require compromise. Firstly, forget the shirt numbers.

In defence, Tuilagi would likely occupy the inside centre channel with Lawrence, probably more agile when moving laterally, at outside centre. As he showed during the Six Nations, the latter is a disruptive jackaller at the breakdown. Lawrence came from relative obscurity to feature in that tournament 23 following injuries to Dan Kelly and Daly. Borthwick’s first midfield trio, lest we forget, was Smith-Farrell-Marchant. Lawrence arrived from the bench late on before being named to start with Slade against Italy and Wales.

Lawrence wore 12 and Borthwick bestowed on him an unapologetically clear responsibility: to smash down the front door. Despite the 13 on his back, Slade often stepped up at first-receiver to play pivot passes on set moves – as inside centres like Kelly, Tompkins and Tuipulotu often do – with Lawrence carving from out to in.

Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade in action against Italy - Ollie Lawrence and Manu Tuilagi can be England’s gain-line dominating centre pair at Rugby World Cup

Lawrence carves from out to in as Slade steps up at first-receiver

‌These patterns, which see the fly-half and blindside wing circling around their centres, survived into this year’s Six Nations from the Eddie Jones era. But Lawrence would not necessarily need to be converted into a first-receiver to play alongside Tuilagi. With Farrell and Slade as potential pivot men, Kelly was deemed surplus to requirements for England’s pre-season. Richard Wigglesworth has had time to redraw or supplement attacking plans.

Ashley Beck, a seven-cap Wales international, is convinced that his former Worcester Warriors colleague has more to give than he showed during the Six Nations. He believes England should prioritise sending Lawrence, a powerful athlete who weighs around 10kg less than Tuilagi, towards spaces rather than faces. Beck could see a partnership working, though.

“You’re not going to ask Ollie and Manu to do a lot of leg-work,” he says. “They will more or less hold the middle of the field. You have to play to their strengths and not use them in the wrong way because they could be the difference in how deep England go into the tournament.

“If I’m defending at centre, you might have Manu coming at you on the first phase and think ‘OK, we’ve stopped him, but he’s over the gain line’. Then the next phase you could have Ollie or Billy Vunipola coming around the corner. It would be a bit like the Wales pattern of a few years ago with the combo of Jamie Roberts and Jon Davies.”

Beck, now attack coach for Worcester Warriors Women, suggests that Tuilagi and Lawrence could cut angles off scrum-halves close to the breakdown during phase play and is confident that the extended preparation period gives scope to alter first-phase plans.

“These guys are living with each other for the next few months and they have a couple of games,” he adds. “You should be able to change an international rugby player’s mind on running lines and starter plays. And how many starter plays do you get anyway? The scrum is a lottery with line-outs, teams tend to keep the ball on the park [with their kicking]. The smaller the menu, you’re probably better off.”

‘England did not use him as well as they could’

The versatility of Lawrence, according to Beck, should be useful. At Bath, for instance, he has thrived alongside a ball-player in Cameron Redpath. “That play with the 10 out the back, the 12 at the line and the 13 short, the running lines he picks off that when it is run well… he made a living for myself and Ryan Mills [at Worcester] because he ran the short line so well,” Beck says of Lawrence.

“The 10 gets a bit of freedom out the back because you wouldn’t want to tackle him one-on-one because of his fight in contact. The way he’s playing for Bath, you can use his footwork and his offload game. I didn’t feel that England used him as well as they could have. It was like he was a set up for the next phase. I always feel he’s better on the next phase when you get the ball in his hands early and there’s a chance of a one-on-one.

“I think he’s the ideal one to play in either system. He’s shown that he can run into a wall and chase kicks, make his tackles and get over the ball. He could play with Manu if the second and third phases are going to be the ones where he’s running onto the ball. At the same time, if [England] wanted to go Ford-Farrell or Smith-Farrell, that is like how he plays with Cam Redpath at Bath.”

Borthwick must be mindful of balancing the rest of the back line, of course. One leading attack coach underlined the importance of keeping Farrell in the groove he found at Saracens last season and stressed the importance of auxiliary ball-players around him. Tompkins’s short passing game facilitates matters for the Premiership champions, especially from first-phase situations. Daly and Bristol Bears-bound Max Malins are ball-playing, roaming wings. Alex Goode is an exceptional playmaker from full-back.

Without denigrating Freddie Steward, the young Leicester Tiger does not have the playmaking poise or passing skills of Goode, Willie le Roux or Hugo Keenan. One would think that at least one of Malins or Daly would be a must if Tuilagi and Lawrence start together with Steward at full-back. Any speed deficit could be made up by stationing a pacey back-rower like Ben Earl, Tom Curry or Tom Pearson out wide.

In the 2019 Six Nations against Italy, with Farrell at fly-half, Eddie Jones packed the considerable punch of Ben Te’o and Tuilagi into his midfield. Joe Cokanasiga started on one wing, too. However, in Daly, they had a left-footed playmaker at full-back and could change things up by bringing Ford and Slade off the bench.

With Tuipulotu and Jones, or ‘Huwipulotu’, Scotland are using the inherent advantages of a franchise system by tapping into the cohesion of a Glasgow Warriors pairing. Tuipulotu, like Jordie Barrett for the All Blacks, embodies the value of playmaking prowess from centre. His bobbling grubber kick, pounced upon by Jones, set Scotland on their way at Twickenham in February.

Beck highlights Lawrence’s kicking game and offloading as unheralded assets. As for Tuilagi, his name may elicit groans from some supporters. Many are weary – justifiably so – of England’s willingness to rely on a veteran with a brutal injury history. Then again, Tuilagi went well enough against Ireland in March. In Tom Tombleson and Aled Walters, England have two conditioning gurus who will have monitored Tuilagi assiduously.

A succession plan for the centres can be part of Borthwick’s to-do list for 2024 and beyond. As far as sticking plasters for 2023, a Tuilagi-Lawrence enterprise is an exciting one.

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